JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson brought all the hype to Saturday's Progressive Gator Bowl. His counterpart, Mississippi State signal caller Chris Relf, stole the show.
Relf threw for 281 yards, matched his career high with three touchdown passes and rushed for 49 yards and a score in MSU's 52-14 win to earn the game's Most Valuable Player award.
"I told Chris during warmups today, I said 'I got a feeling you're going to play your best game of the season,'" said Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen. "I think you saw the maturity that Chris has starting to come along, how he's starting to mature by managing the game."
Relf's day was marked by consistency.
In joining Greg Plump as the only MSU quarterbacks to ever throw for over 200 yards in a bowl game, the junior from Montgomery, Ala., completed all but five of his 23 pass attempts while throwing just one interception, a deep heave to the end zone that was picked off by Michigan's Cameron Gordon to end the first half.
Such a performance led to Relf's fourth game this season with at least 200 yards passing. He's also combined to tally 793 yards through the air in the Bulldogs' last three games and now ranks third all-time for Mississippi State in career completion percentage, completing 57 percent of his career passes.
"(Passing) is something I worked on in the offseason," said Relf. "I'm just throwing to the wide receivers and I feel real good passing the ball. We work on throwing all the time in practice. It's just a matter of going out there and doing it."
Making his performance all the more special, Relf's big day came while wearing the No. 36 jersey of fallen teammate Nick Bell, an honor that has been bestowed upon a different MSU player each week dating back to the Nov. 13 game at Alabama.
Relf became the fourth different MSU player to sport Bell's number this season.
"(Wearing No. 36) meant a lot to me," said Relf. "Tonight I just felt like (Bell) was with me when I was out there making those big plays."
Relf's playmaking started early. After Michigan took the game's opening kickoff and marched down the field to take an early 7-0 lead, Relf led the Bulldogs on an 11-play, 79-yard drive, capped by his first touchdown pass to Arceto Clark.
"After (Michigan) scored that first touchdown, we knew we had to respond," said Relf. "I have to give a lot of credit to our offensive line and receivers. They blocked really well and did a great job of catching the ball today."
While Relf directed praise to those around him, his coach took a different route.
Mullen gave the accolades to Relf's improved decision-making abilities and cited one particular instance late in the third quarter to back up the claim.
Just after the MSU defense forced a turnover on downs with the Bulldogs already up 38-14, Relf and his offense took over at their own 12-yard line.
Looking to go deep, the 6-foot-4, 240-pounder dropped back to pass, but had to settle for an underneath toss to redshirt freshman running back LaDarius Perkins.
The result was the longest completion of Relf's career, an 81-yarder all the way to the Michigan 7-yard line.
The play was also the Bulldogs' longest play this season and the longest pass play since former MSU quarterback Omarr Conner hit Ty Freeman with an 84-yard completion against Ole Miss in 2004.
Perkins completed the drive with a touchdown run on the following play.
"We tried to take a shot deep down the field that wasn't there," said Mullen. "(Relf) kept his poise, stood in the pocket, stood in the pocket and finally checked down. We tried to tell him all year long that when you check it down, good things will happen and now I have some film to prove it."
Relf said the play is just more proof that he is growing as a quarterback.
"Coach (Greg) Knox is always telling me that checkdowns are a good investment," said Relf. "I saw (Perkins) coming out of the backfield and I didn't see anybody open so I just checked the ball down."
Saturday's game also marked the second time in as many seasons that Relf has closed a season with a stellar performance.
In last year's season-capper against Ole Miss, Relf rushed for 131 yards and one touchdown while passing for 43 yards and two more scores.
Relf says the 2009 Egg Bowl game laid the foundation for the player he has become.
"I just took last year's game (against Ole Miss) and just built off it," said Relf. "This game, I just wanted to go out and execute and make plays."
Those plays led to Relf hoisting the MVP trophy at midfield to the clanging of an approving, cowbell-ringing MSU fanbase.
In Relf's acceptance speech to the crowd of 68,325 at EverBank Field, he thanked Mullen, the MSU coaching staff and the man represented by the jersey he wore.
"I know for (Relf) it was a special thing, a special honor to wear number 36," said Mullen. "When the team got together, we thought it would be a special thing to have Chris wear it today. I think it stands out maybe a little bit more than other players wearing it.
"I'm sure he had an angel on his shoulder right there today, winning the MVP."